Silvio Berlusconi’s last-minute decision to pull out of a family values forum in Milan this week came as no surprise after the latest revelations about the Italian leader’s dalliances with under-age girls. But perhaps more troubling for the prime minister were two conventions held at the weekend where he was not on the guest list.
On Sunday, Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of the lower house of parliament who this summer split from the People of Freedom Party (PDL) he co-founded with Berlusconi, spoke before members of his new political movement, the Future and Freedom Party (FLI), and called on the 74-year-old leader to resign for the good of the country.
The move by Fini comes just over a month after he and his allies had backed the government in a confidence vote over a programme that included reform of the justice system, a reform that Berlusconi’s critics argue will assist him to end criminal trials in which he is a defendant.
Fini’s about-face puts added pressure on Berlusconi just as the media mogul turned politician has been trying to quell reports about his efforts this spring to free a 17-year-old Moroccan runaway nicknamed Ruby from police custody after she was arrested on suspicion of theft. The girl testified that she was a guest at Berlusconi’s villa outside Milan and received cash and jewellery from the Italian leader out of “sympathy”.
Police released the girl after a call from the prime minister, who misled authorities by claiming the aspiring model was the granddaughter of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak.
But even as new stories of escorts and the transport of cannabis on the prime minister’s jet circulate in the press, Berlusconi has not shunned the spotlight. At a motorcycle trade fair last week, he played the macho card and bluntly joked: “It’s better to be fond of beautiful women than be gay.”
Those not laughing at the premier’s offensive remarks included a nearly 7,000-strong contingent at “Next Stop: Italy”, a conference held over the weekend in Florence and organised by Matteo Renzi, the city’s mayor and rising star in the opposition Democratic Party (PD).
Organised online via Facebook and blogs, the gathering consisted of rousing speeches by Renzi and other thirty-something politicians eager to find a way out of Italy’s economic malaise – the country has shed 500,000 jobs during the financial crisis.
Also making an appearance was Bill Emmott, the former editor of the Economist, who once ran the bold headline “Why Silvio Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy” on the magazine’s cover.
Emmott, who recently published a book entitled Forza, Italia: How to restart after Berlusconi, offered the partisan crowd some advice in their fight against “Il Cavaliere”.
“It’s easy to criticise Silvio Berlusconi, he works hard to make it easy. But just attacking him leaves him exactly where he wants to be: at the centre of everything.”